Increasing Post-Secondary Credentials: Achieving the Dream Colleges Meeting the Challenge

A June 3rd blog post by Bill Gates inspired Dr. Karen A. Stout, incoming President and CEO of Achieving the Dream, to share examples of successful practices at Network Colleges that are improving student outcomes and contributing to the vitality of the nation’s economy. Gates’ post draws attention to the need to increase the number of Americans with post-secondary credentials to meet the growing supply of jobs that will require education beyond high school. He describes several approaches introduced by Chancellor Cheryl Hyman at the City Colleges of Chicago to illustrate the possibility of dramatic improvement in graduation rates and other student outcomes. Read more about the fundamental changes Achieving the Dream Institutions are making below.


Although Bill Gates is not a college graduate himself, he pointed out in a recent blog post how badly the US needs them. In fact, millions more of them. By 2025, two-thirds of jobs will require education beyond high school. But based on current graduation rates, there will be a shortfall of 11 million skilled workers to fill many of those positions, according to recent research by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce.

Simply increasing the number of students entering higher education won’t solve the problem, he notes. Over the last 25 years, enrollment in postsecondary programs has increased by more than 50 percent, suggesting the largest source of the shortfall isn’t a lack of access. Rather, the source is the number of students who leave without a credential. More than 36 million Americans who have begun college haven’t graduated.

To help the nation’s economy and the millions of students who begin college full of hope for a better life, we must accept the challenge of finding new, effective ways to enable those students to finish what they begin. The challenge is especially great in community colleges, where the traditional emphasis has been on access rather than completion, and a noteworthy number of students are underprepared academically, low-income, and working while they’re attending classes.

A decade ago, a group of 26 community colleges emerged at the forefront of a reform movement dedicated to making fundamental changes in their operations in order to increase student success. Known as Achieving the Dream, the movement has grown to over 200 colleges today. Its Leader Colleges have identified evidence-based approaches to closing the skills and completion gap, a mission that has become all the more urgent since its founding.

For example, Leader Colleges are finding that stronger advising linked to meaningful academic support makes a difference for students. At Bunker Hill Community College in Bunker Hill, Massachusetts, new students participate in a Learning Community Seminar supported by a Success Coach Advisor and an ACE Student Mentor. The Advisor collaborates with Seminar faculty on career and education planning. The Mentor helps students adjust to Bunker Hill’s academic and social environment and serves as a model learner, peer teacher and study group facilitator. This approach is rooted in research pointing toward the benefit of integrated approaches to increasing persistence and retention for at-risk students.

Achieving the Dream Institutions are increasingly following Aspen Prize finalist Miami Dade College in acting to improve student completion by reducing confusion caused by too many course choices and hard-to-understand program requirements. Miami Dade created pathways, a clear sequence of courses students can follow toward degrees and certificates, after working groups identified a number of reasons students weren’t completing programs. Under the leadership of President Eduardo Padrón, a college-wide effort took shape to redesign programs, strengthen advising, and link academic support to academic programs so that students could achieve their goals more easily. After a year of planning and several years of implementation, the Miami Dade created default curricula for five degree pathways that serve more than 60 percent of all new students, among other critical changes.

Achieving the Dream Institutions also are redesigning mathematics and English courses for students who aren’t ready to begin college-level courses. The Community College of Baltimore County raised degree and certificate completions by 55 percent after it revamped reading instruction for underprepared students to accelerate their progress to credit-bearing classes and created a comparable approach to developmental math, among other changes. Patrick Henry Community College in rural Virginia made fundamental changes in teaching to emphasize learning communities, leading its three-year completion and transfer rates to more than double from 15 percent to 33 percent for all students. Both colleges earned the prestigious Leah Meyer Austin Award for the sweeping changes they made and the dramatic improvement in student outcomes. At Davidson County Community College in Thomasville, North Carolina, new students who need developmental math are advised to register for it in their first semester. Postponing developmental math lengthened the gap between math experiences and delayed college-level math, both of which created stumbling blocks to completion. Whenever possible, Davidson’s programs of study now include math in the first semester so students begin math earlier and any math-related challenges can be identified promptly and addressed.

Leader Colleges are responding more quickly to local labor market needs, identifying in-demand industries and designing course pathways that lead to jobs that pay family-sustaining wages. In the wake of natural and man-made disasters, the Northeast Resiliency Consortium, a group of seven Achieving the Dream Institutions led by Leader College Passaic County Community College, is becoming the region’s leader in addressing the employment needs of three industry sectors – health care, information technology, and environmental technologies - that are instrumental in helping local communities respond, recover, and adapt in times of crises. Consortium colleges help workers obtain the skills, competencies, and credentials needed to advance along a career pathway and into in-demand positions in those sectors.

In addition to changes in students’ academic experiences, Leader Colleges and others are recognizing their obligation to give students the best possible opportunity to reach their goals extends to increasing students’ ability to support themselves and their families. Achieving the Dream’s Working Families Success Network in Community College program unites 19 community colleges committed to integrating strategies that help students complete certificates and degrees, connect the credentials to jobs that pay family-sustaining wages, and ensure that students learn how to build assets and access complementary services to create a solid financial base for themselves and their families. Other college efforts include the Family Economic Security Program at Norwalk Community College, which helps groups of single parents by offering academic and financial coaching. The No Excuses Poverty Intervention at Amarillo College connects students in financial need with community services and college resources through coaches and benefit “Super Navigators.” The college is also piloting a Benefit Bank that automatically submits applications and documentation for all federal, state, and local support using only a student’s tax information.

More than a dozen Achieving the Dream Institutions have been recognized as finalists in the competition for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, a biennial award to institutions that achieve exceptional levels of success for their students while they are in college and after they leave. College of the Ouachitas, a Leader College in Arkansas, for instance, was honored for increasing graduation and transfer rates over three years for all students from 43 percent to 52 percent. The college thoroughly revised its first-year student experience for all students to include mandatory new student orientation and registration and enrollment in a credit-bearing freshman seminar; redesigned developmental math; curricular redesign, and designed and started a social networking/support program called Men on a Mission that targets student success and retention of African American men. Other Achieving the Dream Institutions also have moved beyond small-scale innovations to make similarly wide-ranging changes.

All in all, Achieving the Dream Institutions have made important strides toward enabling more students to earn postsecondary credentials. We will continue to develop and test approaches that help more students more quickly. Closing an 11 million worker gap will take our best efforts, but we’re up to the challenge.

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